WENATCHEE — As the Wenatchee Wild began the playoffs Friday, the Town Toyota Center buzzed with activity.
Vendors lined the corridor selling hockey jerseys and team paraphernalia, and fans commuted through the hallways as early as 40 minutes before puck drop as they made their way to their seats. In all, 3,727 fans piled into the arena to watch the Wild trounce Fresno 7-0.
Postseason play didn’t create the lively atmosphere, although it certainly didn’t hurt. The Wild are a big draw in Wenatchee and have been since they came to town in 2008.
The team’s average attendance for the 2012-13 regular season was 2,854 — third most in the North American Hockey League behind Fresno (3,555) and Corpus Christi (3,310), two cities that have a population of more than 300,000 — and the postseason is likely to sell significantly more tickets.
While the Wild have a strong fan base and are arguably the biggest sports act in town, the organization’s future in Wenatchee is an uncertainty. The tier-II junior hockey franchise and the city’s Public Facilities District are in the midst of contract negotiations, and both sides appear to be far from reaching a new deal, a difficult issue for longtime fans.
“This is one of the best things that ever happened to the community,” said Leonard Singhose, a longtime hockey fan who has lived in Wenatchee for the past 12 years.
Singhose, a retired agricultural worker, has been a season ticket holder since the team’s inception, and like many other loyal fans, is concerned the Wild could be leave town.
Singhose has fallen in love with the product, a fast and exciting pace of play with high-caliber athletes, many of which go on to play in the Division-I ranks.
But he’s also seen the community benefits in having a junior hockey program in town.
The players have become a vital part of Wenatchee, Singhose said.
“They go out and do so many things in our community,” he said, listing off the team’s school reading program, among other volunteer work. “They’re real great ambassadors.”
Richard McDonald’s thoroughly enjoyed rooting for the Wild over the last five years. McDonald, who owns Papa Murphy’s on 5th Street in Wenatchee with his wife Sharon McDonald, has been a season-ticket holder and team sponsor from the start and spent much of his life watching hockey.
“This is my sport,” he said. “We usually go to New Mexico for winter and this year we stayed home.”
McDonald has grown accustomed to rooting for a winning team — the Wild have made two Robertson Cup appearances in four postseasons — and said bringing in a new franchise, an avenue Town Toyota Center officials are actively pursuing, would be a tough sell.
“I wouldn’t want to come in with a new hockey team and not meet expectations,” he said.
Sue Cowlishaw isn’t a season ticket holder, but she attends between 10 and 12 home games per year and said that she and her husband, Kelly Cowlishaw, were seriously considering investing in season tickets for the 2013-14 season before word got out that the Wild may leave Wenatchee. Sue Cowlishaw agreed that if a new hockey team were to come to Wenatchee, the expectations would be high.
“It would have to be of an equal caliber,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to get any higher. I think they (the Wild) should stay, whatever it takes to keep them here.”
“I really don’t want them to go.”
Jon Frank: @JFrankWW